Monday, March 2, 2009

Obama administration fights to keep inmates from paying for DNA tests that could prove their innocence

It's hard to say whether or not Obama or any of his appointees in the Justice Department approved this, but it's pretty appalling nonetheless:

Does the U.S. Constitution permit an innocent person to be imprisoned or executed? Seems like a question with an obvious answer.

Here’s another question: If a convict can establish irrefutable proof of his innocence with a simple DNA test, does he have a constitutional right to that test, even if he has exhausted his legal appeals?

The answer to both questions isn’t at all clear, and may depend on how the Supreme Court rules in the case of District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, which it heard today. Surprisingly, 32 states, the city of New York, and the Obama administration are urging the Court to answer "no."

The defendant in the case is William Osborne, who in 1993 was convicted of a brutal kidnapping, rape, and assault in Alaska. DNA testing on semen found in a condom at the crime scene didn't exclude Osborne, but it did include as many as 16 percent of all black men. More sophisticated testing not available at the time of Osborne’s trial would today conclusively determine whether he actually committed the crime. Even the state of Alaska concedes that a negative test would confirm that Osborne is innocent. The test would cost all of $1,000, a fee that would be paid not by the state, but by Osborne’s own legal team at the Innocence Project.

Yet the state of Alaska refuses to hand the sample over for testing, and has fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep it from Osborne’s lawyers.

Former FBI director William Sessions says something that makes me think that Obama hasn't heard of this particular Justice Department decision, though it's entirely possible that he's already sold out to political expediency:

It's a generally laudatory goal for a new president to continue the DoJ polices of the previous one when he takes office. But a change in position may be warranted in some cases. Osborne is one of them. The Justice Department's decision is particularly perplexing because when President Obama was an Illinois state senator, he responded to that state's wrongful conviction problem by leading a bipartisan effort to help prevent convictions of the innocent, including laws allowing access to DNA evidence.

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